Schools reaching 'crisis stage'

Laura Barr

Reporter:

Laura Barr

Email:

laura.barr@outlooknews.co.uk

“NO light at the end of a very long tunnel” is how one local primary school principal has described the financial crisis facing many schools currently in Northern Ireland.

Dromara PS principal, Mr Andrew Armstrong said he believes there are “very few” schools that are not “reaching crisis stage in the current climate”.

His concerns come in the wake of a letter issued to parents of Ballydown PS, Banbridge from principal Mr Murphy back in October.

In the letter, Mr Murphy explained to parents that the school is in deficit and is experiencing “huge financial difficulties in education”.

He attributes these difficulties to the formula used by the Department of Education when deciding school budgets.

Schools in NI are funded using a Common Funding Formula.

This formula provides funding for the school per pupil with additional funding offered according to free school meals, SEN (Special Educational Needs), social deprivation, newcomer pupils and small schools' allowance.

Therefore, some schools find themselves with significant additional funding while others receive little or no extra funding.

The Ballydown principal explained that the current funding formula “penalises” schools like theirs which has a very low percentage of free school meals, SENs and newcomers.

In Ballydowns Governors’ report 2018/2019 it states that despite the school reaching their maximum enrolment number and with careful financial management, their income does not cover expenditure.

The report reads: “The current formula for school budgets has not been amended since 2010 and does not take into consideration increasing costs.

“News from the Department of Education would indicate that the financial position for education will worsen further before it improves.

“Despite very careful management of spending in our school we will continue to run into deficit.

“A recent meeting with the finance team at the EA confirmed that the school are doing all that they can to manage their budget, but the shortcomings in the Funding Formula will continue to have significant impact.”

Speaking to The Outlook regarding the Common Funding Formula, Dromara principal of Ballydown PS, Mr Andrew Armstrong commented: “I understand that the Common Funding Formula is being reviewed, but this would seem to be a case of shutting the stable door when the horse has bolted”.

“It was agreed by the NI Assembly back in 2008 that the formula was 'historical' and needed reviewed, but nothing was done.”

Mr Armstrong continued that he would worry that even if a review is underway, nothing will change without a minister in place.

“Dromara PS has trimmed back as much as possible, but as Ms Long, Chief Executive stated recently, we simply cannot make any more cuts.

“We have done everything we can to save money without impacting directly on the pupils, but I am concerned at the toll this will take on staff.

“Support for SEN pupils is high on our agenda, but we just can't fund the level of support for those pupils that we would like.”
“There is an argument that schools with low Free School Meals Entitlement are disadvantaged in the sense that they receive a smaller piece of the education funding pie” he said.

“Let me be clear though, I do not wish to see those schools that need that additional funding losing it, the issue is that the pie isn't big enough to go round in the first place.

“Costs have increased steadily over the years, but the funding that schools have received has decreased in real terms.

“We find ourselves in the position of having a budget which doesn't even cover staff costs, let alone allow for materials, electricity, oil and all the other resources that a school needs to function effectively in the 21st century.”

The Outlook contacted the Department of Education regarding the concerns over the common funding formula used, asking if they have any measures in place to review it.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “The Department fully acknowledges the financial challenges facing schools and continues to make the case each year for additional funding, based on an analysis of the financial pressures facing the sector.

“That said, we do not determine what the final outcome will be each year, as the education pressures are considered alongside other competing pressures across all departments.

“Overall budget allocations to departments must be funded from available resources and are decided by a political process.”

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